July 7th, 2011
"That's one small step for man, one giant leap in my bank balance". These might be the thoughts of eccentric billionaire businessman Richard Branson when his Virgin Galactic brand of Space travel quite literally takes off with paying customers for the first time. At about 200k's (that's US$200 000 dollars or almost R1.4-million, children) it's definitely not a week in Margate. Mr Branson is not alone however; countless other Space Tourism programs have popped up to give the ‘rebel billionaire' a run for his money.
"We have heard it all before..." you might be thinking. Sure, there have been stories of commercializing Space Travel long before Mark Shuttleworth became the first African, and only second ‘space tourist', to leave our atmosphere. Man has dreamed of exploring the celestial realm since Ancient times - but enough with the cheesy stuff. Boeing announced on the 6th of July that their technicians and engineers were to ready Space Shuttle Atlantis and its payload for its final mission that is set to launch from the Kennedy Space centre on July the 8th.
Image by AFP
Still not seeing the significance? The shuttle's payload comprises mainly of supplies and spare parts designed to sustain the International Space Station. Pioneers like Shuttleworth excited many a tourist back in 2002 when he visited the Space Station. NASA quickly published statements saying Space travel wouldn't be viable until the Space Station was complete. Initially planned for 2006, the International Space Station is now finally reaching the end of this process.
Image by AFP
Although this might mean no more than a few tourists per year, it sets the stage for commercialized flights and even the saplings for hotels in the sky! According to spacefuture.com anyway. So how will it work and what can we do today? Here is the future of tourism - Space Tourism- in a nutshell.
Looking at some of the projections, you would be forgiven if you thought you were looking at some Science fiction novel. Although we passed 2001 with no space odyssey the projected plans by companies like Space Island Group and Orbital horizons are truly, out of this world.
Back when reality television was still making initial splash waves, NBC had plans to host a Survivor like show called Destination Mir, with 16 contestants battling it out at Star city in Russia to stand a chance of winning a trip to the Russian Mir space station. Russia had to ground Mir in 2001, bringing not only NBC's plans down, but also set space tourism back a step.
Image by virgin.com
This didn't stop a few groups from attempting to master their own methods of step one into outer space. Step one of course being able to actually get up there - none more famous than the aforementioned Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. Earlier this year, their Space Ship Two made headlines when it re-entered the atmosphere stably. Their Space Ship Two is based on technician Burt Rutan's award-winning Spaceship One prototype, which became the first privately financed manned rocket to reach space in 2004. Spaceship Two's unique re-entry has been touted by aerospace experts as a way to overcome the problem of searing heat that other types of spacecraft face when they plunge back into the atmosphere at high speed. Richard Branson even started posting blog posts about plans to send kids into space. If you are still unsure what Virgin Galactic is all about, this animation should help clear up any confusion.
Closer to home GoTravel24 spoke to SA's first space travel agent earlier this year - Brad Inggs from Orbital Horizons. Orbital Horizon, a Durban-based company, is the first African space travel agent to offer tickets for a galactic adventure aboard the brand new Xcor Lynx spaceship. This two-seater aircraft looks suspiciously like something you'd spot on the runways of any international airport. It was developed by a US company called Xcor Aerospace with whom Orbital Horizon has signed a special deal that allows them to sell tickets in Africa for a 35-minute sub-orbital flight. A sub-orbital space flight is a spaceflight in which the spacecraft reaches space, allowing up to three minutes of zero gravity before returning to land ‘safely' on the earth. At about US$95 000, including a return training trip to the US, it seems to be more, uhm...reasonably priced than Virgin's future flights.
For now these ‘suborbital flights' seems to be the most reasonable expectation for the near future. However, Orbital Horizon and Space Adventures have already started selling tickets to the moon. And if you think it's the fantasies of a bunch of crack pots, another company, Share Space, is headed by Buzz Aldrin. You might or might not know that he was the second man on the moon and one might imagine that he knows his shiz.
Image by spacefuture.com
The first visitors to the Space Station would obviously not be living in Luxury. This is only the first step. Space Island however predicts images of fabulous cities and hotels orbiting around the earth's atmosphere. Apparently it's easy to design basic accommodation in orbit - because it was already done in 1973 with the "Skylab" space station. Minimal living facilities require a cylindrical module with air-conditioning, some windows, and a kitchen and bathroom. But zero gravity allows you to build almost any shape and size, in almost any direction. So exploiting the full range of possibilities of zero gravity architecture will keep snobby designers reaching for the stars! Apparently even space suits as we know them are changing.
The common space hotel design usually features rotating (and tethered) structures that would give artificial gravity. The video below shows their extra terrestrial plans.
Hardly. In a recent Press conference, US president Obama said that "While private companies hustle to build a next generation spacecraft to tote astronauts to space again, the US space agency can spend time figuring out new ways to live longer in space and send explorers to Mars or an asteroid".
Realistically we can always settle for zero gravity flights where a specially modified Boeing 727 performs parabolic arcs to create a weightless environment allowing you to float, flip, soar and pretend as if you were in space. It's also landslides cheaper at $5 000 (about R34 000) and these flights are actually happening right now. Also, it's not just about booking your ticket...you'll need to be in shape and undergo intense training for three to seven days, if not more! Fatties won't fit into those bulky suites in space it seems...
It will probably be a good while before the everyday tourist can say, "I want to go to the moon this Heritage Day weekend". On the bright side, this will give us plenty of time to save!
Image by en.loadtr.com
Or if you like your feet firmly on the ground, visit these top star gazing spots.
Until next time cadets, live long and prosper!